Citizen Science : A Pathway to Civic Action

At last week’s Personal Democracy Forum, Matt Stempeck who has led work on participatory civic projects out of MIT’s Center for Civic Media, moderated a panel on Citizen Science. This is an increasingly critical arena for civic innovation because it combines a DIY hands-on approach with tangible policy products.  By breaking up science into more easily accessible parts, citizens can receive hands-on education while also having fun and investing in their community.  Citizen Science is a terrific example of re-engaging citizens in public policy decisions that impact their lives. It is part of New America’s broader vision for civic innovation: an initiative refocused on people and their communities.
The panel featured four people exploring different facets of participatory technology -- Shannon Dosemagen and Jeff Warren of Public Lab, John Keefe from WNYC’s Data News Team and Catherine D’Ignazio from MIT’s Center for Civic Media and Emerson College. A consistent theme was that citizen science represents a relatively low cost and effective opportunity for citizens to participate in their neighborhood.  According to Stempeck, “we can apply these new powers to creating journalism, campaigning for social change, responding to crises, or monitoring the environmental quality of our neighborhoods.”
Many of these projects break down complex public governance issues, such as water monitoring, into tangible entry points. Public Lab, a distributed online community where anyone can share methods and findings, provides a balloon mapping tool kit for citizens to make their own aerial images. Communities are then free to use the data how they wish - some have contributed the imagery to map data that is used in Google Earth. This is a fun and interactive way to empower the artist and science geek within us all, while transforming peoples’ understanding of their role within their neighborhood and the environment.
With an emphasis on collective participatory data collection, citizen science teaches a model of distributed governance. From WNYC’s quality of sleep project or cicada tracker to Somerville, MA’s wellness report, citizen science tools engage traditionally disengaged individuals in projects that connect information commons with community action.
This kind of engagement has huge potential to build broader civic capacity. Stempeck noted, “these organizations are also transparent and network-based,” two qualities essential to structures needed to support distributed, participatory communities. Citizen Science is actively affecting the way people think about where they live, and what they can change. Have a favorite citizen science project? Tell us about it here.


Georgia Bullen is the technology projects director with New America's Open Technology Institute. Bullen provides data visualization, human-centered design, planning and geospatial analytical support to the OTI team and its community partnerships.

Laurenellen McCann was the director of New America DC, a collaborative research program exploring whether and how national organizations can support existing civic activity in Washington, DC. 

Hollie Russon Gilman is a fellow at New America. She holds a PhD from Harvard's department of government and is the former White House Open Government and Innovation Advisor.